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Iconic Rita’s Tea Room closing 6 years after beloved singer’s death

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Rita’s Tea Room, a small town Cape Breton attraction that once drew tens of thousands of visitors a year on the star power of owner and singer Rita MacNeil, is closing six years after her death.

A post Wednesday on MacNeil’s Facebook page thanked everyone for more than 30 years of patronage, but said the time was right to close the seasonal tea house in Big Pond, N.S.

The former schoolhouse had once been MacNeil’s home.

The Facebook post said a new space has been secured in downtown Sydney, N.S., where MacNeil lived later in life, that will offer a “unique though different experience.”

MacNeil — a famously shy singer-songwriter whose powerful voice explored genres from country to folk and gospel — died following complications from surgery in 2013 at the age of 68.

Rita MacNeil speaks after receiving a lifetime achievement award at the East Coast Music Awards in 2005. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

She recorded more than 24 albums during her career and won the first of three Junos in 1987 at the age of 42 as Most Promising Female Vocalist.

MacNeil is an Order of Canada and Order of Nova Scotia recipient, and along the way became something of a queer and feminist icon.

Her personal story of resiliency and strength — she scrubbed floors and waited tables in Toronto and Ottawa in the ’60s and ’70s, many of those years as a single mother raising a daughter — helped her build a unique connection with her fans.

The Facebook post said the Sydney space will include some of the Rita displays, a gift shop and seating for tea and desserts.

“Your support has been instrumental in keeping my mother’s original business venture alive,” the post said of the decision to close Rita’s Tea Room.

“While an extremely tough decision, especially knowing how wonderful all the folks visiting have been, we feel it the right one at this time.”

Former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, left, and Nova Scotia MP Rodger Cuzner have tea at Rita’s Tea Room. (CBC)

In 1994, the Nova Scotia government contributed $86,000 toward a $620,000 expansion of Rita’s Tea Room to include an exhibit area and gift shop featuring MacNeil memorabilia, local culture and history.

At the time, the tea room attracted 30,000 visitors a year, and the expansion was expected to draw an additional 30,000.

“An increasing number of people from outside this region want to know more about Rita MacNeil, her music and her Cape Breton roots,” Ross Bragg, Nova Scotia’s economic renewal minister, said at the time.

MacNeil’s songs had a deep impact on her listeners, in particular Flying On Your Own, her anthem of personal independence, and Working Man, her ode to the miner’s life.

Rita MacNeil performs Working Man at the Songwriters Circle in April, 2007. 4:36

Along the way, the red clapboard house became a mecca for fans who bought millions of her albums, causing traffic jams and long lines.

“Strangely enough, it attracts a great deal of people,” MacNeil said in 1993 of her 60-seat tea house.

“It was the house where I spent a number of years with my two children, and it was originally built in 1937 as a one-room schoolhouse. When I got the idea to turn it into a tea house, it was certainly on a meagre scale — just thinking a few people would come by. I’ve always invited people to drop by for tea.”

Cape Breton singer overcame shyness to sell millions of albums, and earn fans and acclaim 4:49

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Record one million job losses in March: StatCan

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OTTAWA — More than one million Canadians lost their jobs in the month of March, Statistics Canada is reporting. The unemployment rate has also climbed to 7.8 per cent, up from 2.2 percentage points since February.

Canada’s national statistics agency released its monthly Labour Force Survey on Thursday, using March 15 to 21 as the sample week – a time when the government began enforcing strict guidelines around social gatherings and called on non-essential businesses to close up shop.

The first snapshot of job loss since COVID-19 began taking a toll on the Canadian economy shows 1.1 million out of work since the prior sample period and a consequent decrease in the employment rate – the lowest since April 1997. The most job losses occurred in the private sector and among people aged 15-24.

The number of people who were unemployed increased by 413,000, resulting in the largest one-month increase in Canada’s unemployment rate on record and takes the economy back to a state last seen in October, 2010.

“Almost all of the increase in unemployment was due to temporary layoffs, meaning that workers expected to return to their job within six months,” reads the findings.

The agency included three new indicators, on top of the usual criteria, to better reflect the impact of COVID-19 on employment across the country.

The survey, for example, excludes the more commonly observed reasons for absent workers — such as vacation, weather, parental leave or a strike or lockout — to better isolate the pandemic’s effect.

They looked at: people who are employed but were out of a job during the reference week, people who are employed but worked less than half their usual hours, and people who are unemployed but would like a job.

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Employee at Ottawa’s Amazon Fulfillment Centre tests positive for COVID-19

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OTTAWA — An employee who works at Amazon’s fulfillment centre on Boundary Road in Ottawa’s east-end has tested positive for COVID-19.

Amazon says it learned on April 3 that an associate tested positive for novel coronavirus and is currently in isolation. The employee last worked at the fulfillment centre on March 19.

Two employees told CTV News Ottawa that management informed all employees about the positive test in a text message over the weekend.

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Amazon spokesperson Jen Crowcroft wrote “we are supporting the individual who is recovering. We are following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.”

The statement also says that Amazon has taken steps to further protect their employees.

“We have also implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the FC.”

CTV News Ottawa asked Amazon about the timeline between when the company found out about the positive COVID-19 case and when employees were notified.

In a separate email to CTV News Ottawa, Crowcroft said “all associates of our Boundary Road fulfillment centre in Ottawa were notified within 24 hours of learning of the positive COVID-19 case.”

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Ottawa facing silent spring as festivals, events cancelled

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This is shaping up to be Ottawa’s silent spring — and summer’s sounding pretty bleak, too — as more and more concerts, festivals and other annual events are cancelled in the wake of measures meant to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The province has already banned gatherings of more than five people, and on Monday officials announced city parks, facilities and services will remain shut down until the end of June, nor will any event permits be issued until at least that time.

“This leaves us with no choice but to cancel the festival this year,” Ottawa Jazz Festival artistic director Petr Cancura confirmed Monday.

This was to be the festival’s 40th anniversary, and organizers announced the lineup for the June 19-July 1 event the day after Ottawa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. 

The Toronto and Montreal jazz festivals had already pulled the plug because of similar restrictions in their cities, so Cancura said the writing was on the wall.

“We have a few contingency plans to keep connecting with our audience and working with our artists,” Cancura said.

People holding tickets to the 2020 festival can ask for a refund or exchange for a 2021 pass.

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